Sunday, January 22, 2006

Servant of a vast flux

Countless lives inhabit us.
I don't know, when I think or feel,
Who is it that thinks or feels.
I am merely the place
Where things are thought or felt.

I have more than just one soul.
There are more I's than I myself.
I exist, nevertheless,
Indifferent to them all.
I silence them: I speak.

The crossing urges of what
I feel or do not feel
Struggle in who I am, but I
Ignore them. They dictate nothing
To the I I know: I write.

- Ricardo Reis (Fernando Pessoa); Translated by Richard Zenith.

This blog has many idols, many voices that it seeks to worship, a veritable Pantheon of Lares and Penates to whom it wishes to pay obesiance. Among these gods is one Fernando Pessoa, 1888 - 1935, Portugese poet and writer whose heteronymous talents regularly leave me speechless.

That Pessoa is an extremely skilled poet is besides the point - certainly there are many greater
talents among his generation of European poets alone. What makes Pessoa special seems, at first glance, like a clever party trick - the fact that he writes not as one man, but as four [1] each with his own individual voice - the bucolic nature poet Alberto Caeiro, the rambling and urbane Alvaro de Campos, the classical aesthete Ricardo Reis, my personal favourite [2] and the sensitive and somewhat tortured Fernando Pessoa himself. These are not simply different pen names though, they represent fundamentally different poets, each with his own distinct and recognisable voice. As an artistic exploration of the notion of identity I can think of nothing finer or more interesting.

In some sense then, Pessoa's concerns are also the point of this blog - they are both wary of the notion of the identity of identity, its fundamental unity. Pessoa's triumph is a refusal to be classified, a refusal to be either this or that. "My heart is a little larger than the entire universe" he writes, so surely it is capable of containing more than one reality, more than one point of view, more than one vector of emotions. You may call this schizophrenia or you may call it simply the contingency of the self, but it is a denial of categories that is essential to this blog.

Many people, including the ever perceptive Harold Bloom, have pointed to the parallels between Pessoa and Whitman, how Pessoa reads, in many cases, like a deconstruction of Whitman, like a splitting of Whitman into his component facets, like a prism splitting a beam of pure light into myriad colours. Yet Pessoa's sensibility has little to do with Whitman's hearty democracy - in that sense Pessoa is much closer to Rilke (and also, in some ways, to Cavafy) and therefore a quintessential European poet from between the two World Wars, tortured by the same demons of existential despair combined with a deep sense of personal frustration, of spiritual impotence. His is a hypersensitive voice, in which the shape of the external world appears in bruises. That such a sensibility should have the courage to assert itself even as one individual is impressive, that so sensitive a man should choose to hold four selves against the world's onslaught is entirely unbelievable.

A few other extracts from Ricardo Reis:

The gods grant nothing more than life,
So let us reject whatever lifts us
To unbreathable heights,
Eternal but flowerless.
Let our only science be to accept,
And as long as the blood in our veins still pulses
And love does not shrivel,
Let us go on
Like panes of glass: transparent to light,
Pattered by the sad rain trickling down,
Warmed by the sun,
And reflecting a little.


I was never one who in love or in friendship
Preferred one sex over the other. Beauty
Attracts me in equal measure, wherever
I find it, in season.

The bird alights, looking only to its alighting,
Its desire to alight mattering more than the branch.
The river runs where it finds its repose,
And not where it is needed.


I placidly wait for what I don't know -
My future and the future of everything.
In the end there will only be silence except
Where the waves of the sea bathe nothing.


[1] I'm counting only the poets here - there's also, of course, Bernando Soares from the Book of Disquiet.

[2] Admittedly, this may have something to do with Saramago's glorious The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis



Inkblot said...

"Denial of categories".
Healing? Reintegrating?

Thanks for this one.

Falstaff said...

inkblot: you're welcome

Cheshire Cat said...

Neuraesthete - Walser and Schulz are others. Pessoa really was a failure, for not believing in himselves enough to take them to their logical conclusion: each poem to be its own person.

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